Saturday, June 27, 2009

On DVD: "The Terry Jones Collection"

Several of the Monty Python alumni have, as they’ve gotten older, stumbled into about the least likely secondary profession imaginable: educators. Michael Palin got there first, with several acclaimed BBC travel series (Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle, etc.); John Cleese did a BBC mini-series called The Human Face and followed it up with TV documentaries on wine and soccer. But the leap from ribald comic to television documentary host makes the most sense for Terry Jones, a longtime history buff whose informative and humorous looks at ancient civilizations have been assembled for the new two-disc Terry Jones Collection.

The first disc collects the three shows of his 1998 Discovery Channel mini-series “Ancient Inventions”. This jolly series puts forth the notion that many of our most ingenious and modern innovations were, at least in embryonic form, utilized by ancient civilizations. Each of the three episodes tackles a different area of modern life and technology, and our grinning, globe-trotting host travels to the regions in question and examines their “primitive” yet advanced tools.

Episode one, “War and Conflict,” finds Jones examining such early weaponry as the boomerang (“the world’s first guided missile”), the Molotov cocktail (the weapon of choice, he says, for “revolutionaries like me”), early guns and cannons, and even a flamethrower. He also touches on codes and communication, battlefield medicine, and scientific advances in warfare. Episode two, “Sex and Love,” is expectedly cheekier (pardon the pun) than the other installments; there are plenty of laughs in Jones’ eyebrow-raising examination of not only the obvious run-ups to the act of love (Egyptian make-up, the Kama sutra, early birth control and pregnancy tests) but unexpected innovations that came about as a result of sex (he notes that the first clock was invented “not to tell time, but to regulate the sex life of the emperor of China”). Episode three, “City Life,” examines the first “cities” of the Middle East, India, Greece, and Central and South America, and how many of our modern conveniences (high rises, fire engines, concrete, banking, even toilet paper) were first used there. Again, Jones makes some unexpected connections; my favorite was the moment in which he muses, “The ancient Greeks apparently invented the hamburger.”

Throughout the mini-series, our host is consistently engaging, funny, and genuinely excited about the subject matter. He also has plenty of opportunities for his cheerful good humor and occasional dry ad-libs, and directors Phil Grabsky and Daniel Percival have fun dressing him up in period duds to illustrate the stories being told; in one ingenious sequence, they do a series of cross-fades showing the host in steadily increasing amounts of armor, to show how battle garb was amended and perfected over time. The shows are also briskly paced, which helps things from getting too dry; in one wonderful scene, for example, they shoot his explanation of the “ultimate weapon” from three moving close-ups, and then intercut them. There are clever stylistic touches like that throughout; Jones and the filmmakers take great, and appreciated, pains to make sure these shows aren’t just history lessons (even when it means going into some of the more stomach-churning details, like how women in Greece would cover themselves with the sweat of their favorite gladiators). Reenactments, related stock footage, computer animations, drawings, hieroglyphics, even models are used to impart information in the most dynamic way possible.

The second disc is comprised of three stand-alone programs; they have the same winsome tone and sense of fun, though these often find Jones interviewing and touring with historians and scholars (as opposed to “Ancient Inventions,” which is strictly a one-man show). The first, “The Surprising History of Sex & Love,” sounds like it would cover the same ground as the middle episode of the mini-series, but this one is less about technology and more of an examination of sexual mores through the ages; Jones (and his experts) discuss the origination of sexual morality in religion, the switch from early eroticism in Indian culture, Puritanism, odd sex laws, and more. But as with the previous special, it’s full of great tossed-off tidbits and trivia; the highlight here is the amusing anecdote that Corn Flakes were originally developed to help reduce sex drive.

“The Hidden History of Egypt” begins with a booming voice-over and big music, before Jones interrupts and notes, “Look, quite honestly, this stuff isn’t what interests me.” The focus of this special (and the next) is not the tombs and pyramids, not how royalty died, but how common people lived. He examines the day-to-day life of an Egyptian commoner, checking out a typical Egyptian home, investigating their language and religion, and going so far as to sample the clothing, diet, and make-up of the day. “The Hidden History of Rome” takes on a similar approach and structure; its intro separates the haves and the have-nots, and taking on a typical citizen as his protagonist, Jones looks into how they lived their lives. The Roman special takes greater pains to examine the wealth divide (and how that impacted what was left behind by these cultures), even going so far as to pose an interesting question: “Was it worse to be a poor but free Roman, or a slave?” One enjoyable section has Jones and an expert on Roman cuisine shop for and prepare a Roman workman’s lunch, while he has some fun checking out the old Roman baths. This final special comes to a stronger conclusion than the others; he thoughtfully summarizes the good and bad of the period.

Throughout the specials, the former Python proves an excellent host; his enthusiasm and good humor are infectious. Sometimes just hearing his Pythonesque readings gets a laugh; I giggled a bit at his description of “chopping it up into bits and moving it to the top of a cliff” (as you can see, it’s not an inherently funny line, but something about the way he says it…). Jones is clearly having a good time playing with the props and gallivanting around in the funny costumes, but he also has a palpable love for the history and for sharing what he’s learned. The specials aren’t perfect—they drag in spots, some of the conclusions are a stretch, and there is some repeating of information (and footage) from one disc to the next—but all in all, they’re nimble and fun, an enjoyable excursion that could have very easily been a chore to sit through.

The Terry Jones Collection should attract and please fans of the Python boys’ solo work, as well as those who enjoy such offbeat historical works as the Cartoon History of the Universe books. The shows are certainly an acquired taste, but for receptive audiences, they are chock full of interesting facts and obscure information, and Jones’ good-natured and frequently funny hosting is an excellent candy coating for this nutritional set.

"The Terry Jones Collection" hits DVD on Tuesday, July 28th.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Today's New in Theaters: 6/26/09

Transformers- Revenge of The Fallen: No film this summer is more likely to make an assload of money; no film this summer is less likely to be seen by this guy right here. Transformers was my pick for the worst film of 2007; I've seldom seen a stupider, louder, more irritating picture. But even critics who were fairly kind to that film are slamming this one as a long (2 and a half hours, for God's sake-- EDITOR, stat!), incomprehensible mess. Ebert wrote a wonderfully scathing review, and a follow-up essay on the film.

My Sister's Keeper: Nick Cassavetes has made a couple of films (She's So Lovely, Alpha Dog) that indicate he may have inherited his dad's skill at putting together gritty, character-driven, hard-edged dramas. However, his biggest box office hit to date was The Notebook, so he'll apparently be paying the bills by making tearjerkers. Nothing in the trailers makes me want to sit through this; Orndorf's review on DVD Talk has got me thinking my gut instinct is correct.

Cheri: Stephen Frears is one of our most underrated directors (his filmography includes High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, and The Queen); when he last collaborated with screenwriter Christopher Hampton and star Michelle Pfeiffer, the result was Dangerous Liasons. Reviews have been less enthusiastic for this reunion, though it's still getting some respectful notices.

The Hurt Locker: Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq-bomb-squad picture has a boffo trailer and is getting great reviews (Scott Foundas of The Village Voice, no easy one to please, calls it "the best American film since Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood); but it's a movie that takes place in Iraq, so it'll probably make about four dollars.

In Theaters: "Tetro"

Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro is a film of startlingly beautiful photography and design; it’s an incredibly pleasurable film just to look at. Shot in crisp, textured, glorious black and white that luminously fills the wide 2.35:1 frame, it is packed with shots that are simply stunning. And Coppola doesn’t just make pretty pictures; his entire technical presentation is flawless. I’ve seldom, in recent years anyway, seen a film that so skillfully utilizes composition, sound, hard cutting, and visual tricks to tell its story.

The problem is that it’s a story that’s barely worth telling. Tetro is a great-looking picture, but there’s a void at its center—it’s about two characters we don’t really care about, played by two actors who aren’t terribly interested in meeting us halfway. Those characters are Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a 17-year-old kid who runs off to Buenos Aires to track down his long-lost brother, and Tetro (Vincent Gallo), that brother—well, technically, half-brother. They are the sons of a world-famous composer; he remarried after Tetro and his mother were involved in a terrible automobile accident that left the woman dead. Tetro, a promising writer, left home many years before; he started, but never finished, an autobiographical novel, but went a little crazy and dropped out of society. He now lives with Miranda (Maribel VerdĂș), a lover/nursemaid who spends a lot of time making apologies for him (“He is like a genius,” she muses, “but without enough accomplishments, you know?”). Tetro knows a great deal about Bennie’s mother, who has been in a coma for several years, but he’s reluctant to share any information with the curious teenager; “He really doesn’t want to know his family any more,” Miranda explains, but of course secrets will be revealed and old wounds will be opened, as Bennie discovers the text of Tetro’s book and decides to adapt it into a play.

In spite of sharing screenwriting credits on most of his best films (and sporting a solo credit on The Conversation), Coppola’s screenplay is probably Tetro’s weakest element; it meanders, it ends about three times, and most of the dialogue is awfully thin. The wobbly declarative nature of the lines isn’t helped much by Gallo’s detached hipster line readings, and while Bennie certainly appears to have been written as a cipher, Ehrenreich doesn’t do much to transcend that. Strangely, the female members of the cast shine the brightest; VerdĂș, most memorable as the object of desire in Y Tu Mama Tambien, is just marvelous, turning in a shaded, complicated performance, while an actress named Ximena Maria Locono makes a fine impression in a brief but key role as Tetro’s lost love Naomi, seen in flashback.

In a neat flipping of convention, the present tense is seen in black and white while those flashbacks are in color (and in a more conservative 1.85:1 composition, framed within the wider image). That’s a nice trick, but some of the other touches (and narrative flourishes) flirt with pretentiousness—and others stop flirting and just go all the way. The film is occasionally interrupted by oddly surreal visual interludes (which the film explicitly states as being inspired by Powell and Pressberger’s Tales of Hoffman); they’re kind of silly, and the last one morphs into some kind of an story-interpretative ballet sequence (as if we’re watching an old Rogers and Hammerstein musical or something). By that point in the picture, they’re also competing for screen time with the play-within-the-film, plus the flashback scenes that inspire the play, and at some point, we have to ask how many levels of interpretation this shallow story actually needs.

That and many other questions will be asked in the final half hour, in which the film basically goes splat; a story twist is introduced that is painfully, obviously foreshadowed a few scenes earlier, while a clumsy climax at a peculiar theatre festival is awkwardly staged and entirely unsuccessful. That scene plays like the Solazzo scene in The Godfather, however, compared to the howlingly bad funeral scenes that follow it; the service itself is groan-inducing in its lurching, strident melodrama (including some hoary business with a conductor’s baton), while the scene that follows is choppily assembled and full of dialogue so amateurish, we’re left wondering if that actors were making up their lines. The final scene might have been effective, had it not been preceded my so much overwrought schmaltz.

But I just can’t overstate how great Tetro looks and how exquisitely it is made; it should be seen, just for the pure pleasure of its aesthetics. But the beauty of the images also spotlights the emptiness at its core. Bennie and Tetro have what should be an angrily emotional confrontation in a hospital room, but as Tetro leaves and slams the door behind him, I wasn’t thinking about the character or what he was going through; I was noticing how exquisite those white blinds looked on the door, and how bewitchingly they swung to and fro after the angry exit. Suffice it to say, I’m fairly certain that’s not what Coppola intended his audience to be considering at that moment.

The phrase “style over substance” gets tossed around too often. It’s usually applied to garbage like the Transformers movies, which are technically proficient but stupid on even a basic motor level—the style is all there is, and if it weren’t there, the substance wouldn’t be worth salvaging. When applied to a movie like Tetro, there’s something more poignant; based on his filmography, Coppola clearly know how to spin a yarn. But this is his second film (following 2007’s poorly received Youth Without Youth) after a decade-long absence from filmmaking, and he’s clearly still re-learning the ropes (a fact he’s as much as admitted to in interviews). As a visualist, he’s never been sharper. Now he just needs to get his storytelling back up to snuff.

"Tetro" is now playing in limited release.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

So here's where we ended up today.

To explain: For my money, Louis C.K. is one of the five best stand-ups working today (the other four are, in no particular order: Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Lewis Black, and Zach Galifianakis). So I follow him on the Twitter, and yesterday he posts this thing about emailing if you want to come to a taping of stand-up for his new TV show. I reply, of course, thinking it's probably, you know, a couple of weeks away. Then around one, as my buddy M.J. and I are on line for the Bruno preview screening, I get the email to come on to the taping, it's this afternoon in the Village. "What're you doin' after this?" I ask. "Nothing," she replies.

So we got to go watch Louis work. He wrote and directed (just like Pootie Tang!) this show, which is a Seinfeld-style stand-up and sitcom mix that he's pitching to FX; this was them taping the stand-up portion of the pilot episode, with a very small tight crew and a RED camera. The set-up portion was as dull as on any shoot (that part, we understood); what was cool was that he took the mic and fielded some questions and told some stories during all of that, and then we basically got to watch him do some new material (with some starting and stopping for camera stuff), for free.

I do love living in New York.

Kael of the Week: Good Movies (and bad ones)

“A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theater; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in this Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit more sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.”
"Trash, Art, and the Movies," Harper's
February 1969

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 6/23/09

Waltz with Bashir: A terrific hybrid of documentary, narrative, and stunning animation; it's quite unlike anything I've ever seen, and I mean that in the most purely complimentary sense. Well worth picking up, and the Blu-ray is gorgeous.

The Code:See exactly how far Morgan Freeman will go for a paycheck in this laughably bad heist caper. Co-starring a nearly-unintelligable Antonio Banderas and the usually great Robert Forster, in a role so bad you literally feel sorry for him.

John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band- Live in Toronto '69: Half of a great show, as classic rockers precede John, Clapton, and Klaus Voorman to the stage for a rip-roaring set of chestnuts. And then they let Yoko get in on the action.

Pink Panther 2: I didn't actually see this one. But I learned my fucking lesson from the "original" Pink Panther remake; it's not only the worst movie Steve Martin has ever made (and that's quite an accomplishment these days), but it's particularly bad compared with even the worst of the other "Panther" pictures.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On DVD: "Night Train"

Brian King’s Night Train is a mess of a picture, tonally scattered, shoddily made, assembled out of spare parts. But it’s also oddly entertaining; you’re aware of the obvious influences and the befuddling scenes and the awful special effects, and yet it keeps plugging away, following every insane turn as if it made complete narrative sense. There are plenty of complaints to be lobbed against Night Train, most of them valid, but I’ll give it this much: it ain’t boring.

The setting is Christmas Eve, and that’s about all we know; the place and timeframe are strangely indeterminate, and the opening scenes are so streamlined that it almost feels like we’re joining the picture already in progress. Danny Glover is Miles, the conductor on a sparsely-populated late night train; med student Chloe (Leelee Sobieski) and traveling salesman Peter (Steve Zahn) are two of the passengers, killing time in the rear lounge car. A man with a Christmas package stumbles in to their car, downs some pills and chases them with some of Zahn’s vodka, and promptly dies. When the trio checks him out, they discover a mysterious box inside the holiday wrapping; what’s inside the box is valuable enough to make them wonder what would happen if the traveler just, well, disappeared.

These set-up scenes, and the trio’s grisly point of no return, have the marks of a decent little thriller (like Zahn and Sobieski’s previous collaboration, Joy Ride, or the similarly-plotted Shallow Grave), briskly paced with a nicely macabre sense of humor. We’re playing in Hitchcock territory here, with clear references to Strangers on a Train and The Lady Vanishes, but we’ve seen enough movies to know that disposing of the stranger is just the start of their troubles—the situation careens away from them, Simple Plan-style, so covering up one body means there will be another, and another, and so on.

The trouble with King’s screenplay is that as their plan goes out of control, so does the movie. He’s not content with the falling-dominoes story structure set up in the first act; he tries, unsuccessfully, to slam in some supernatural elements (they are, to put it charitably, an awkward fit) while amping up the carnage, nearly turning the third act into a riff on Terror Train. And the final scene, which seems to want to replicate the closing scene of Raiders on a much, much smaller scale, doesn’t play at all.

In addition, some of the filmmaking is troublesome. A cutaway of the dead man shows him very clearly breathing, and the odd, over-processed glow of the cinematography is just plain peculiar. But the least successful element of the film is the train exteriors, which are comprised entirely of singularly unconvincing CGI. Plainly put, when the film cuts from the stage replicas of train cars to the establishing shots of the train roaring through the nighttime countryside, it’s like we’re flipping back and forth from a live action movie to a cartoon. The filmmakers attempt to cover up the sloppy work by keeping the shots dark and snowy, but it’s not gonna fool you: that is a mighty fake-looking train, made even more obvious in the unfortunate sequence where Glover and Zahn toss a suitcase from the moving train and their badly staged platform shots have to intermingle with the poorly rendered CG footage. (On the other hand, Hitchcock kept using bad process shots well into the 1970s, so maybe it was a shout-out.)

The performances are a little uneven. Danny Glover’s role doesn’t require him to do much more than be calm and wise, and he can do both admirably, but he and director King muffle the scene where his character knows they’ve gone too far; all that’s written is for him to look vacant, and that’s pretty much all he does. Zahn is always an engaging presence, but he basically just plays frantic and/or greedy (and the jokes about his profession get old, and fast).

The nicest surprise is the snazzy performance of Leelee Sobieski. Her low-energy underplaying doesn’t always land, but there’s a kick to her work here, a kinkiness; she’s having a good time being bad. Her Chloe is tough to get a read on; she’s resourceful as hell and not easily thrown, and there’s a terrific moment in which she deadpans her lines to Glover as blood is splattered across her face and glasses. As the film progresses, she slowly peels away layers of her character (and, fetchingly, her costumes), and while the turns of her character may not make a helluva lot of sense, she commits to them. It’s fun to watch her go, even if the editor hangs her out to dry, acting-wise, at the climax.

Night Train is such an uneven mixture that I can't quite bring myself to recommend it, but it's too intriguingly batty to dismiss outright. It's not a timid picture, that's for sure; King's helter-skelter energy and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink storytelling style doesn't quite pull together into anything coherent, but with the right material, he may be a new filmmaker worth watching out for.

"Night Train" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, July 7.

Me on "The Film List"

Hey kids, I was the featured guest on the new episode of "The Film List," an excellent podcast in which host Heath Solo talks movies in list form. Most episodes thus far have been favorite film lists, but we changed it up and did a list of my Top 10 Favorite Directors.

You can stream it right here:

Or you can go to the show's page on the TalkShoe website to do a direct download or get an iTunes link. I'm a little long-winded on it (shocking), but I think it came out pretty good.

Also, if you haven't noticed, I'm doing weekly appearances on my buddy Mac's podcast "Operation Attack Squirrel," doing entertainment news and quickie movie reviews. You can always stream it on the right side of this page, or get links on that show's website here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Coming Attractions

As the work week begins (well, your work week... I work Friday through Tuesday, but that's neither here nor there), here's a look ahead at some stuff you can expect to see in the upcoming days:
  • Theatrical review of Francis Ford Coppola's latest, Tetro, which looks really intriguing. And I guess the guy's done a good picture or two.
  • A Blu-ray review of a movie I've never heard of called Night Train, starring Danny Glover (who's getting too old for this shit), Steve Zahn, and Leelee Sobieski. It's apparently a straight-to-disc situation, but the trailer looks intriguing, and the last time Zahn and Leelee made a movie, it was Joy Ride (aka Paul Walker's Only Watchable Movie Ever).

  • Also on Blu-ray: Two Lovers, the supposedly-good movie that Joaquin Phoenix was "promoting" when he was doing all his craaaaaaay shenanigans a few months back. It also has Gwyneth Paltrow in it, YET I'M STILL GOING TO WATCH IT. Is there nothing I won't do for my art?

  • I'll explore the void between the four stars of Roger Ebert and the "this blows, just like all of Nicolas Cage's movies" of everyone else when I check out the Blu-ray of Knowing.

  • Monty Python's Terry Jones apparently did some hour-long history/comedy specials for British television, which have been collected on the inventively-titled Terry Jones Collection. So I'll give those a look.

  • Oh, and don't tell anyone, but I'm probably seeing Bruno this week. I won't write it up until release dates so as not to violate all those press embargoes and whatnot, but watch the Twitter for my first-blush (perhaps literally) thoughts.

So keep reading. IT WILL BE FUN.

In Theaters: "Away We Go"

Seldom has a filmmaker done so complete a 180-turn, in terms of subject matter and tone, as quickly as Sam Mendes has with Away We Go. His previous film, the studied, difficult suburban drama Revolutionary Road, was no doubt a tough picture to make; some would argue it is an equally tough picture to watch. I admired the film without buying all the way into it—it is, for the most part, immaculately done (the cinematography and production design are stunning), with moments of great power. But there’s something overwrought about the entire endeavor, as if everything onscreen has been so carefully prepared and composed that the genuine passion and life has been sucked out of the frame.

There’s none of that in Away We Go, a loose, freewheelingly intimate seriocomic drama penned by novelist Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and his wife Vendela Vida. It is probably not an inconsiderable leap to assume that Dave and Vendela put at least some of themselves into protagonists Burt and Verona, and I’m not just talking about the similarity of their Christian names. Their dialogue is full of the shorthand and easy interactions of a long-time couple; this is the kind of relationship where a meandering “Still…” is a perfectly acceptable end of a conversation.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are a cohabitating but unmarried couple who are forced to reevaluate their lives when Verona gets pregnant (the opening scene, in which they discover this bit of information, has one of the great hard-cuts to title that I’ve ever seen). They live comfortably enough in Colorado to be close to Burt’s parents, but when that pair announces they’re moving to Belgium for two years (a month before their granddaughter’s birth, no less), Burt and Verona suddenly find themselves untethered. They decide to search for a new place to plant their flag, and work up a quick list of places where they might find solace with friends and relatives.

The resulting five-stop journey is episodic in nature, which is both the film’s blessing and its curse. It works because it gives the admittedly muted narrative a bit of momentum; the trouble is that a couple of the vignettes don’t quite work, or at least don’t work on the same level as the rest of the film. In Arizona, they visit Verona’s former colleague, a trashy mom of two played by Allison Janney; I’m normally a fan of her work, but Mendes needed to pull her way back. Her portrait of a cheerful vulgarian is too broad a caricature to fit in with the low-key realism of the film—it throws the tone all out of whack. Same goes for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ultra-bohemian “alternative parenting” guru; it’s tough to resist any scene that includes the phrase “In the sea horse community,” and there are certainly laughs to be had in her sequence. But they’re easy jokes, and some of them are cheap at that.

Those bits don’t derail the picture, however; even when things get too cartoony, we’re anchored by the spot-on reactions of Krasinski and Rudolph. They’re quite good together, sharing nearly every scene and effortlessly projecting a laid-back, lived-in, agreeable charm. As exhibited weekly on The Office, Krasinski’s comic timing is near-flawless; he’s amiably funny throughout the film, but particularly in the early scene with his parents (of her new hairstyle, he deadpans, “I don’t think it makes you look crazy at all…”). Rudolph is a calm, soft, natural presence, grounded and immediately likable. Together, they have a disarming casualness and a marvelously recognizable “you and me against the world” strength.

As their journey continues (aided greatly by the music of Alexi Murdoch, whose songs give the movie the same kind of extra weight that Elliot Smith’s did in Good Will Hunting), the stakes are quietly raised. There is a strange but beautifully emotional scene, quite unexpected, with their college friends (admirably underplayed by Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), while an unforeseen emergency with Burt’s brother (a terrific Paul Schneider) pulls the film to an unhurried conclusion. Mendes’ touch is nimble here, less stylized than any of his previous work—though that’s not to say that it isn’t beautifully shot by the skilled cinematographer Ellen Kuras (a frequent collaborator of Michel Gondry and Spike Lee). But it doesn’t feel as artfully pre-arranged as Revolutionary Road or (for all of my admiration of it) American Beauty. It kind of shambles along agreeably until it arrives at its closing scenes, which are, in their own tranquil way, sheer perfection. Away We Go is an uneven film, but a lovely one nonetheless.

"Away We Go" is currently playing in limited release.